The Athletic: MLS considering 18-team, best-of-three playoff system

Nov 5, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC players pose for a team photo with the Philip F.
Nov 5, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC players pose for a team photo with the Philip F. / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer is still finalizing its playoff system for the upcoming season. Per reporting from The Athletic's Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio, an 18-team playoff is the frontrunner for an adjusted playoff.

This new set-up would include a play-in game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seed in each conference before the primary opening round of the playoffs. That opening round would be a best of three series, with each team getting to host at least one postseason game.

The ensuing rounds would be a single-elimination knockout tournament like the last four seasons.

The Athletic initially reported a best-of-three style postseason at the beginning of January. The newest reports corroborate that initial report, with the new information of the play-in round.

The MLS playoffs are always great. The added intensity of knockout soccer always brings the best out of every team in the league. The single-elimination era of the playoffs have led to a lot of extremely entertaining playoff games over the last four years.

Speaking personally, however, I don't think a pure single elimination was the best way to handle the MLS playoffs. Soccer is a sport with a high level of variability. In that way, it's more like hockey than it is American football. That should be taken into account when crafting an optimal playoff sytem.

The National Hockey League uses a seven-game series system which has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs equal parts fair and exciting. Fairness isn't a big deal in sports --- and playoffs are an inherently unfair way to decide a champion --- but in high variability sports, single elimination playoffs can be extremely frustrating.

Since the single-elimination playoffs were introduced in 2019, only three top seeds in either conference advanced to the conference finals. It wasn't until this past season when a top seed made it to the MLS Cup final --- LAFC and the Philadelphia Union were the top two teams last season.

Last year's outlier aside, the single-elimination model led to a lot of chaos. That's a double edged sword. That unpredictability led to a lot of super fun and memorable moments, but it also meant a lot of the best and most interesting teams in the league had playoff runs cut short.

This new structure would be the best merger of the old, two-leg playoff structure and the newer single elimination model.

Having a multi-leg opening round allows for two things. 1) It will ensure more deserving teams make it into the latter rounds of the postseason by removing single-game variability and 2) It gives more buildup time to the playoffs.

I've mostly written about the fairness and competitive balance of multi-leg playoffs, but proper build up is equally, if not more, important.

The last few playoffs have breezed by. The single-leg system means there are fewer games and all of a sudden it's the MLS Cup Final. Adding extra games in the opening round just gives the playoffs more runway and will give time for fans (at least me, anyway) the time to fully sink and transition into postseason action.

Keeping single elimination in the final rounds of the playoffs is the best of both worlds because it still keeps that high-stakes, high-leverage action we've seen over the last few years.

While a multi-leg system is something I love, I have mixed feelings about a 16/18-team playoff. In an 18-team model, 62% of the league would make the playoffs. The only other professional sports league with percentage that high is the National Basketball Association.

The NBA playoff added its own play-in system a few seasons ago, and if we include all play-in teams as playoff participants, then 67% of the league makes the playofs. Only including full, seven-game series playoffs, then that number drops to 53%.

This new MLS system would be very similar to the NBA. And that also means the same main problem of the NBA: giving meaning to the regular season.

The lack of value in the regular season has been a point of contention in MLS for years, and an expanded playoff will only accelerate those conversations. With that many teams making the playoffs, a 34-game regular season doesn't have particularly high stakes.

For what it's worth, I personally find a lot of value in the regular season. It's a way to qualify for the Concacaf Champions League and it can lead to a Supporters' Shield. While a lot of fans or organizations don't particularly care about the Shield, I personally still think it's a meaningful accomplishment.

The advent of Leagues Cup also should add stakes throughout the season. Regular season standings play a role in Leagues Cup seeding, but more importantly, taking a break midway through the year for a knockout tournament breaks up the monotony of the regular season.

The lack of regular season stakes really only becomes a problem about halfway through the year. The beginning of the year is all about feeling out the team, figuring out how things work and establishing form. The end of the year is all about playoff seeding and positioning.

The middle of the season is a dead zone of stakes.

By adding a tournament midway through the season, that should hopefully add some fire midway through the year and breakup the lengthy regular season.

We'll see what the league decides on, but there's nothing wrong with mixing up the playoffs. There's no right way or one way to decide a champion and MLS is an excellent testing ground for new ideas and new playoff models.